Margaret Fuller: Editor, Critic and Women’s Rights Advocate

Today’s article is about a woman who had great interest in the intellectual education of women: Margaret Fuller. 📝

Fuller dedicated her life and work towards educating the masses, but women in particular. Her work as editor and writer was a way to reach a broader audience, and the way she became known. But her legacy was not only in her writing: her thoughts on inequality between men and women is mostly known through her intellectual meetings. 💭

Get to know the feminist thinker Margaret Fuller in the full article here:

Margaret Fuller| *23-05-1810| † 19-07-1850 | USA | Journalism, Women’s Rights Advocate

If a woman is framed as complicated and irritating, this often means she has something to say that others do not want to hear. Journalist, editor, critic and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller was such a woman. Few of her contemporaries in the 19th century were prepared for her uncompromising claim that “inward and outward freedom for woman as for man shall be acknowledged as a right, not yielded as a concession.” Despite the resistance coming from everywhere, she did claim a lot, wrote and spoke a lot and made a difference for a lot of women of her time. Who was this Margaret Fuller?

Sara Margaret Fuller Ossoli was the eldest of eight children. Her dad was quite disappointed that she was born a girl and therefore decided to give her a boy’s education. Although her father put a lot of pressure on her, his education and status had a lot of pros as well: she, for example, got access to the Harvard library, which was really special since women weren’t allowed to go to universities back in those days. It allowed her to move into the same sphere as her contemporary male intellectuals and also to earn their respect, which gave her quite some opportunities during her life.

Her father was also the reason she got into education. When he died, Fuller was suddenly responsible for taking care of all of her siblings as well as her just-widowed mother. She had never anticipated a career in teaching, but took a job at the Greene Street School anyway. She saw how boys at this school were trained both in rhetoric and in elocution and were expected to speak in front of the rest of the school. Fuller realised the necessity of educating young women and girls in rhetoric as well, so they could overcome the restraints of feminine modesty and could communicate clearly what was on their minds. She trained the girls at Greene Street through “pleasant conversations”, in which she tried to develop both intellectual discipline and independence of mind.

Fuller quit her job after 18 months, but the teaching had inspired her to continue having these pleasant conversations with women. She organized a series of weekly meetings for well-educated women and in this way created an intellectual community in which women could speak freely and discuss and learn in a Socratic way. It gave women the opportunity to think about what mattered to them, instead of what men found important for women. These conversations were really important for Fuller, since they became both a form of feminist activism and a modest source of income. On top of that, some theorists claim that these conversations also inspired Fuller’s writings, especially her book Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845). 

Although quite some people have claimed that Fuller was a better speaker than a writer, she also wrote. She was an editor of the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial, which played a really important role in her legacy as a feminist writer. Even though the Transcendentalist movement was mostly focused on the individual, this didn’t stop Fuller from talking about societal issues such as the inequality between men and women. In 1843, she published her essay “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men. Woman versus Women”, in which she speaks of the liberation of the sexes from the separation of spheres imposed by society. According to Fuller’s Transcendentalist beliefs, the polarity between the masculine and the feminine was not something located between the sexes, but within the individual themselves. 

She expanded this essay into Women in the Nineteenth Century. In this book she radically envisioned a world in which both men and women could unequivocally be anything they wanted. The concept of the separate spheres of femininity and masculinity was – according to Fuller – a case of arbitrary barriers which prevented true equality. 

Fuller crossed a lot of barriers herself, for example when she went to Europe to become a reporter. This made her one of the first American women that achieved the status of a journalist. While in Europe she had the chance to meet and speak to a lot of important thinkers of the time. A lot of European intellectuals had developed ideas about class and the need to reform class systems. When Fuller came in touch with these ideas, she developed socialist sympathies and became more and more radical in her views.

One of the things about Europe that really interested her, was the revolutionary war that took place in Italy. The Revolution made her focus shift from the Transcendentalist’s inner individual reform to outward social change. Unfortunately we can’t read much of her work from these times now. When the war was over, Fuller decided to go back to America, but the ship she and her family were on, sunk in a storm. They didn’t survive, and her last legacy, History of the Late Revolutionary Movements in Italy, was gone forever as well.

Fuller has been marginalized by a lot of scholars. Her involvement with the Transcendentalists was largely ignored and the potential impact of her arguments on gender and sexuality was long ago obscured. When the second wave of feminism took place, most feminist weren’t aware that Fuller had earlier responded to the same challenges they were responding to at that time. Even today we can still learn a lot from Fuller’s writings.


Author: Maaike van Leendert
Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

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